In a move that surprised many, Daniel Humm, chef of New York City's Eleven Madison Park, announced he's changing the restaurant's menu to one that is all plant-based. The three-Michelin starred restaurant, considered one of the best in the world, is also thought to have enormous influence on what happens in the restaurant industry.
Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet magazine, told The New York Times that she believed Humm's decision could have potential to shape the future of the American restaurant scene similar to how Alice Waters and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, forged the farm-to-table movement in the late '70s.
So what sparked this change and is the U.S. at the tipping point of a veganism movement?
Where's the Beef?
Why Eleven Madison Park and why now? Humm's announcement came after the restaurant has been shuttered for more than a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The move might seem risky for a restaurant made famous by its lavender honey duck and butter poached lobster. But Humm said in a statement on the restaurant website that the new plant-based menu "[will] not use any animal products — every dish is made from vegetables, both from the earth and the sea, as well as fruits, legumes, fungi, grains and so much more."
The change seems to have been inspired by Humm's work with Rethink Food, a nonprofit that provided food for New Yorkers over the last 15 months and helped keep some of his staff employed during the pandemic. But the refocus also is Humm's way of making less of an impact on the environment.
"We have always operated with sensitivity to the impact we have on our surroundings, but it was becoming ever clearer that the current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways," the statement says.
While Eleven Madison Park may be one of the most prominent restaurants to go totally vegan, it's not the only one in this plant-powered luxury dining movement. Several days after Humm's announcement, Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung said it too plans to add five plant-based dumpling dishes to all of its 13 U.S. restaurants to meet demand for fine dining vegan options.
Another influential chef, San Francisco's Dominique Crenn, already removed all meat from her restaurants in 2019. Crenn, who is the only woman in the U.S. to earn three Michelin stars, still serves fish in her restaurants, but meat is off the menu.
"Meat is insanely complicated — both within the food system and the environment as a whole — and, honestly, it felt easier to just remove it from the menus all together," Crenn said in the 2019 announcement. "Local and sustainable fish and vegetables are just as, if not more, versatile — and delicious."
Removing Beef Is a Bold Move
Lizzy Freier, senior research manager at Technomic, Inc., a foodservice industry research firm, tracks menu trends in the restaurant industry. She says it's always hard to tell how decisions like these will impact the foodservice industry as a whole.
"What we do know is that younger consumers especially have been pushing for more sustainable actions from restaurants, and offering vegan fare is definitely a step in that direction," Freier says via email. "However, because so few consumers do actually identify themselves as vegan (2 percent), this is a bold move for sure. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the industry reacts."
However, Freier acknowledges that 42 percent of consumers eat vegetarian/vegan fare once a week compared to just 34 percent of consumers who said the same in 2018, according to Technomic's Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report. "As plant-forward ingredients continue to move into the mainstream, consumers are likely to be more accepting of new vegan proteins, including vegan eggs, ribs, hot dogs, breakfast sausages, pizza toppings and 'pigless' bacon," she says.
Most vegans, vegetarians and even pescatarians are already familiar with myriad ways to use plants to replace beef in their foods. Ingredients like cashews, almonds, oats, mushrooms, cauliflower and jackfruit are all adaptable vegan and vegetarian options.
Freier says restaurant operators are working with suppliers and manufacturers to add these plant-based proteins to their menus. She says she thinks one of the most interesting to look out for on mainstream restaurant menus could be the banana blossom. "It's a Southeast Asian flower that blooms on the end of banana clusters," she says. "Its chunky, flaky texture makes it an appealing substitute for fish."
Sustainability Is the Reason
While it's hard to say what the impact of Michelin-starred restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, Din Tai Fung and Atelier Crenn could be on other restaurants, what does seem certain is their reason behind the decision; it's about sustainability as well as supporting the vegan lifestyle.
And it's not just restaurants that are 86ing meat. In a move that stunned a lot of fans, the editors of Epicurious, Condé Nast's flagship food magazine, announced April 26, 2021, it would no longer publish new beef recipes, articles or newsletters. The decision, the editors said in an online statement, isn't anti-beef, it's pro-planet.
"We know that some people might assume that this decision signals some sort of vendetta against cows — or the people who eat them. But this decision was not made because we hate hamburgers (we don't!). Instead, our shift is solely about sustainability, about not giving airtime to one of the world's worst climate offenders," the Epicurious statement says.
Of course, it will take a lot more than tweaking a few menus and one editorial mission to make a dent in the way we eat, but these could be major first steps toward taking veganism mainstream.